“People don’t know what it means to become an Arab at six years old,” writes Somali author Mohammad Ali Diriye on the back cover of his short story collection, Ila Karakas bila ‘awdah (One way to Caracas). Born in Somalia, Diriye went into exile at a young age, and studied in Saudi Arabia and Sudan — formative experiences in his literary career that have deeply influenced his contributions to contemporary Arabic fiction. Like other emerging Somali diaspora authors, Diriye deals with the familiar themes of war and exile, but from a new perspective. Unlike Arabic writers in Beirut or Baghdad, he uses the Arabic language to describe another civil war, on the other shore of the Red Sea. In his writing about about exile, which he describes as “the narrative of an Arab pirate,” the Arab world is no longer the point of departure but the destination.
In La‘nat al-janub (“The Curse of the South”), a short story I recently translated into English, a man leaves his homeland — Somalia is not explicitly named — and starts a new life in Saudi Arabia. The man tries to forget everything in relation with the land of his ancestors, but at the end of the day, his efforts prove futile: remnants of Somalia persist in his mind, against his will. Despite the fact that Diriye doesn’t directly mention Somalia or the civil war in the story, they still linger all over the text. Indeed, their very omission evokes a traumatic lapse in memory.
The relationship to exile is expressed not only geographically but linguistically as well. “The Curse of the South” makes two references to the Arabic language. The first one deals with the dialectal variation observed by the narrator traveling inside the Arabian Peninsula: “When he passed Najran and arrived at the Saudi territory, he was bothered by the revolt of the letters just over the border. The pure q south of the border had become an ugly g in the North. He was afraid that all the other letters of the Arabic alphabet would change along the road to the North.” The narrator feels uncomfortable with this change; he seems to lose his landmarks once again. He has learned and adopted Arabic, while trying at the same time to forget his mother tongue, but now he discovers that his new language may adopt other forms. It is as if his quest for balance never ends. At the end of the text, the same character suffers a fever contracted in his homeland, and the mother tongue that he had tried in vain to forget overrides Arabic: “the delirium didn’t expose him to the others, because he was raving in his mother tongue, which has nothing to do with Arabic, except for the names.” The language, taken here as a metaphor for the homeland, reminds us that one can never deny or erase his roots.
For decades, civil war and migration have been addressed in Arabic literature by many talented novelists from countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, and Iraq. It is only recently, however, that Somali writers have started producing major works of fiction in Arabic. These authors introduce uniquely Somali perspectives to an Arab readership, including in their texts words, sentences and even songs quoted in Somali, along with tackling issues that are not often discussed in the Arab world. Up until 2010, Maxamed Daahir Afrax’s 1976 novel, Nida’ al-hurriyyah (The Call of Freedom) was the only printed work of Arabic fiction by a Somali author. In Beirut in 2011, Diriye published One way to Caracas, and in 2013 he won the sixth Sharjah Literary Prize for an upcoming novel. Another Somali author, Zuhra Mursal, published Amirah ma‘a iqaf al-tanfidh (A Princess with the Stay of Execution) in Cairo in 2012. In addition, dozens of other Somali writers have published Arabic short stories, poems, and book chapters about exile online, on communal websites like Somali Future and al-Shahid.
These writers have a native fluency in Arabic and a deep knowledge of Arabic literary culture, but at the same time their literature maintains an intimate connection to their Somali roots. Most of them belong to the Somali diaspora in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as in other countries like Egypt or Syria, where they were educated and were often born. The emergence of this literature coincides with the rise of a generation of young Somalis who were forced to leave their homeland as a consequence of the civil war which broke out in 1991 and the socio-economic chaos it engendered. Their texts are set in Somalia and other African countries, as well as in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Syria. In this sense, they can be compared to Western authors of Arab, African, or Asian descent writing in English, French, and other European languages, like Khalil Gibran, Diana Abu-Jaber, or Maaza Mengiste in the United States. These writers are united in that their homeland fuels their inspiration even as they tackle new issues related to their experience in exile. But for the Somali authors, the Arab world is a new destination rather than a departed homeland, and Arabic is not only a means of expression but a topic to be tackled.
Diriye and other Somali authors enrich Arabic exile literature, breathing Arabic literary references and standards into a Somalian context and widening the limits of Arabic literature. While Diriye calls himself a pirate, he’s actually more like a trader, facilitating a rich exchange across location, language, and culture.